Thursday, May 31, 2012

Feminist Theology and Iconoclasm

I totally agree with the previous poster’s [LR] assessment that Mary is not going anywhere, and I think this can be best understood in the context of the narratives of a general “fall of religion” that have been proposed in the modern era. People keep thinking that science and “rationality” will supersede religion at some point, and it keeps not happening, and with Mary as with other objects of devotion, it won’t happen.

Still, this does not relieve modern people of the task of interpreting and understanding the tradition within a modern context. As much as I disagree with Warner’s claim that “the Virgin's legend will endure in its splendour and lyricism, but it will be emptied of moral significance, and thus lose its present real powers to heal and to harm,” (339) I sympathize with the difficulties she experienced growing up as a Catholic girl/woman in the second half of the twentieth century. While the demand of the Virgin for “purity” may not actually have been interpreted as solely referring to “sexual chastity” for the “nearly two thousand years” that Warner claims (xxi), it seems undeniable that it has taken on such an interpretation in a strong way in recent years, and this is a development that will only be reversed if scholars and Catholics and people increase the extent to which alternative interpretations are voiced. We can see from current events such as the recent crackdown on the Leadership Council of Women Religious that it is not always easy to be a woman in the Catholic Church today, and while gender should never be our sole category of analysis with regards to historical and social issues, it is a relevant one in today’s society unfortunately often. While the events of the last half century have not eradicated Marian devotion nor religion in general, they have certainly shifted the cultural landscape greatly. We are still feeling the effects of these shifts now and will probably continue to do so going forward. In order to gain the most benefit from religious traditions such as the tradition surrounding Mary, we must put in the work of interpreting them in a way that is simultaneously faithful to the tradition and relevant to the modern context. This process does not entail the “salvaging” of resources from the past that Daly (83) or some other feminists would have it be, but rather just one more iteration or reiteration of Mary and her images and meanings that have been repeatedly refigured and reimagined over the course of the past 20 centuries. Any appropriate modern reimagining will, to my mind, include a combination of accurate understanding and interpretation of the historical tradition with an understanding of the needs and concerns of modern people in our contemporary context. Perhaps with even an element of divine revelation thrown in there.

This need for constructive reimagining is why I (like many people, I have to assume) find myself frustrated with Mary Daly. I think I have very little patience for iconoclasts in general, because at some point you have to stop tearing things down and actually put forth a constructive suggestion. As far as I can tell, Daly never really puts forth an alternative to the “patriarchal past” (83) that she wants to completely reject, neither in this chapter nor anything else I have read by her. More accurately, the only alternative she puts forth is a vision of some sort of primal power of the “Great Mother” who existed before all patriarchal religion. I would be more sympathetic with the ideas Daly proposes within this framework if she admitted that the idea of a unified female religious symbol that existed before Christianity was in the realm of feminist mythology rather than history. (not to be dismissive of mythology!) I suppose that one is meant to take Daly, as a theologian (of sorts), as speaking religious truth rather than historical, but it seems to me that this line is particularly easy to blur when creating new myths in a “postmodern” age where mythology is popularly looked on as foolishness. There are isolated passages of Daly’s writing that I really appreciate. The paragraph on page 86, for example, that begins “when the idea itself of Mary’s being conceived without ‘original sin’ is ‘selectively perceived,’ it can convey an entirely different meaning” would be insightful if it were framed differently—if, for example, she had written “Imagine if Mary’s being conceived without ‘original sin’ was a negation of the myth of feminine evil.” Such an invitation to a new conception of the figure of Mary would be welcome to me. The problem is Daly’s statement that we “can” “selectively perceive” aspects of the Marian tradition and come up with anything like an appropriate interpretation. The ideas she puts forth in this paragraph are interesting to think about whether or not one believes they are theologically sound. Her mistake comes in framing hers as the only acceptable interpretation and rejecting all existing aspects of the tradition.

On the flip side, the same concern with a combination of respect for the tradition and constructive new suggestions for the modern era is why I particularly loved Sarah Jane Boss’s interpretation of Mary as creation. She opens the chapter with biblical interpretation, grounding her understanding firmly in the tradition. She goes on to construct an interpretation that remains theologically grounded while speaking to a modern audience. She views her interpretation as correcting for a modern Western culture that is “at war with nature” (8), and she acknowledges the potential biases of her modern Western readers (9). In this way, through her interpretation she allows those aspects of the tradition that seem most pertinent to today’s context to speak to modern readers.

To my mind, this type of interpretation that remains grounded in the tradition but simultaneously aware of its modern context is the ideal form for a feminist theology. One does not have to accept Daly or Warner’s interpretation to recognize a potential need for feminist theological interpretation—by which I mean theological interpretation that takes into account the specific needs of contemporary women. One good outcome that I would credit Mary Daly in particular with, despite my vehement disagreement with most of her framework, is that her work spurred many other Catholic feminists to create new interpretations that spoke to the needs of contemporary Catholic women (ultimately similar needs to those Warner and Daly recognized) without rejecting or vastly misreading the preexisting traditions.


  1. I had a bit of difficulty reading Daly mainly because I felt she was not proposing strong alternatives to a past and current church or Church where a ministry for women did not thrive.

    I disagree with Daly that Mary is an impossible model for women. I’d like to take that thought a step further. I believe that Mary is a role model for all of humanity whether male, female, celibate, married. I would not say that I do not see the issues Daly sees in the Church patriarchy. However, her polarization of a woman-kind and Mary as “the only among all woman” seems problematic to me. The way I try to reconcile those two items, absolute polarization and a supposed image of Mary that is not necessarily a model of sorts is the following… I tried to think about it in terms of Mary as the new Eve which some other authors expand on. I figured that if for a moment we can accept Eve as an evil woman who condemns woman-kind and humanity by her sin, then Mary has to redeem by her obedience and service to God. The way I justified this thought to myself without furthering a “good –woman vs bad-woman” dichotomy was by continuing under that pretense that Eve condemns and Mary redeems. .. Since Eve was created for Man (Adam) then Mary must have been created for the God (for the Trinity; spouse of the Holy Spirit, Daughter of the Father and Mother of the Son).
    If Mary was created for God, then I would suggest that the model Daly finds challenging or polarizing would not be since the object of desire in a Marian relationship with God would be none other than God. By thinking of Mary in this way, I find it easier , for lack of a better word, to explore Tradition and Dogma that to some writers like Daly may have issues with. On the other hand, Daly seems to have a problem with Mary being “good” only in relation to Jesus (p. 82) and I do not necessarily since in a Catholic teaching good must come from God and no other source. I may have not read enough into her objections to “traditional” theology and Dogma, but I felt that the way I thought of Mary as being for God and her being a model for us to also be for God, rather than for Man[kind] was helpful for me in understanding my objections to her writing.

  2. I have participated in a seminar on women’s religious history this quarter on Thursdays, and sometimes I jokingly refer to Thursdays as “righteous indignation day.” In my class, we have encountered many exceptional stories of women, but have also encountered many, many ways in which women have been marginalized, and still are, as part of our class reading has involved modern scholars who still find themselves called on the justify why studying women in history is important and valuable. Sometimes it makes me a little mad. From this perspective, while I do not agree with Daly, either, I sympathize with her. In the midst of the Second Wave of feminism, she was breaking new ground (and was probably a bit mad). She did not have the benefit to the extent we do today to build on the strengths and correct the weaknesses of a body of scholarship proceeding. I agree, ELM, that iconoclasts are frustrating, and though I felt a certain kinship to Daly, I also wrote annoyed notes in the margins about her shortcomings. I think your last paragraph captures something vitally important to remember in our frustration: Daly started the conversation—the wrecking ball she proposed opened the opportunity for others to propose new structures, suggest renovations to the current ones, or point out the beauty and stability of those already there.


  3. I also was skeptical on several of Daly's points, yet heavily agreed with others, so I really appreciate how your post put this in context for me. I really like the point you brought up about Mary's Immaculate Conception reverting the previous belief that women are inherently evil. This made me think back to The Second Sex and the feminine mystique, which I just finished reading in SOSC, and how women are put down in society by men because they are made with a sort of scheming evil, as well as not being fully able to function as men. Several of Daly's points about Mary do indeed speak against this, than Mary was and is just as capable and holy as other men revered by the Church, and is, in fact, second only to the trinity itself. I feel that this speaks to Catholic women and girls such that we no longer should have to take a backseat to men in the Church and should hold power and have our religious viewpoints be taken just as seriously as the viewpoints of men.


  4. I agree that we have to give Daly some credit for breaking the ground for feminine scholarship, however tough a challenge that may have been. For me at least, I can thank her that because of work like hers, I do not have to focus so much on gender inequality in my own life (because it is in the process of being eradicated, I believe). We must be careful, however, to not fall down the slippery slope of “selectively” looking at a problem. You mentioned the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, so I would like to make a comparison. I think that there is a correlation between Daly's selective perceptions of certain dogmas and doctrines and the current situation with the LCWR. In the case of Daly, you mentioned that this process is difficult to produce “anything like an appropriate interpretation.” I agree, because this process realistically cannot produce an appropriate interpretation, because one is purposely not analyzing the whole. Now, with the LCWR, the Church's “crackdown” happens not to be that the subject in question is that the group is composed of women. Being a woman has nothing to do with the issue. It is the fact that the Catholic Church is not pleased with many of the values and agendas of the group (or rather, it notices that some values are missing from the group's agenda). It is very easy to “selective perceive” what the CDF is undertaking. Many people may believe that this is a crackdown on nuns, but really, it is about upholding the teachings of the Church and encouraging a group that works within the Church to actually abide by the tenets to which they are supposed to be espoused. When we attempt to re-contextualize theology and religion for the modern day, it is necessary to look at the whole, and bring understanding into a context that not just makes the modern believer “happy” and “comfortable” but instills a rooted, holistic faith that has the ability to endure into the future.


  5. Very nicely put: yes, it is entirely appropriate and necessary for us as both historians and theologians to recognize the need for theology to address the concerns of the present day. The problem (as I see it) comes with the failure to put these present day concerns themselves in context historically and theologically. Not because (as is sometimes argued) we who are alive today owe anything to the past (although one could argue that we do), but rather because we owe it to ourselves. Tradition is not (or not only), as the "moderns" of the nineteenth and twentieth century so loved to insist, a drag on the possibility of self-realization; it is our greatest protection against being so completely absorbed by our present-day mythologies that we are wholly entrapped. This, for me, is the terrible irony of Daly's and Warner's arguments: they feel trapped by the tradition but they cannot see that it is also their way out, if only they are able (and willing) to listen to the ways in which it challenges their present-day concerns.


  6. ELM: I very much appreciate your assertion that the persistence of religion “does not relieve modern people of the task of interpreting and understanding the tradition within a modern context.” You then voice a cogent appeal for a “constructive reimagining” of Marian tradition in the modern world. One of your problems with Daly seems to be that she wants to be selective in making the traditions say what she wants them to say instead of presenting an “accurate understanding and interpretation of the historical tradition.” I agree deeply with the way you have articulated your ideal approach to modern “reimaginations,” but this represents perhaps THE central difficulty of historical scholarship. By grounding your analysis in methods and specific examples, you have done an excellent job of preempting what would be the natural question arising from your critique: whether your tendency to agree with Boss over Daly has to do with sympathy for her ultimate conclusions.

    Though I don’t find these divisions particularly useful in precise, historical terms, I will leave this one observation as an example of the difficulty of historical interpretation: “[M]ythology [being] popularly looked on as foolishness” is much more characteristic of “modernity” so-called than “postmodernity” so-called, and this categorization would seem to be informed by a modernist conceit that imputes a non-believing atheism to general humanity.

    Anyway, great, strong post.